I sit here at my dining-room table with tear-stained cheeks. How did I get here?

It’s not so simple.

I grew up in a small town. There were only a few Jews, including my family. I am an only child. My mother is an only child. Her mother was the youngest of 9. She and her husband, my grandfather, are Holocaust survivors.

My mother was “Greek Jews? I didn’t know there were Greek Jews!” born in Greece, like her mother, and her mother’s mother. My father’s family is also from Greece, but his family came to America a few generations earlier. I have heard it so many times: “Greek Jews? I didn’t know there were Greek Jews!”

Generations back, these Greek Jews were not Greek; they were Spanish. One of the places to which Jews fled during the Spanish Inquisition was the Ottoman Empire, which allowed Jews to live relatively peaceful lives in its borders. This is present-day Greece. The Jews mainly gathered in one port city called Thessaloniki, or Salonica.

There were thousands of Jews living in Salonica in the early 1940s. But by the end of the decade, few remained. That is why you may have never heard of the Greek Jews. More than 90 percent of them were murdered when Germany invaded.1

My grandfather was taken to Auschwitz with his brother. He was there for a short time and was then taken to many different locations as a worker. He cleaned the Warsaw Ghetto (of course, not knowing where he was at the time), he experienced and survived a death march, he was in Poland and in Germany, and, thank G‑d, he miraculously survived.

My grandfather, Isaac, (back row, second to right) with his sisters Stella, Lucha, and Sarina. Front row: His parents and younger brother Dario who survived and lives in Israel.
My grandfather, Isaac, (back row, second to right) with his sisters Stella, Lucha, and Sarina. Front row: His parents and younger brother Dario who survived and lives in Israel.

My grandmother’s story is miraculous as well. She was supposed to be taken on the cattle cars to a certain death at 4 a.m. one morning. At 5 p.m. the day before, she, her mother and a few of her siblings received Italian papers and were freed from deportation. She has a long and complicated story, but ended up hiding in the mountains with part of her family. All of her family—her brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews who were deported that day—were never heard from again. Her mother was also from a large family. My Nana said that in all, she lost 170 close family members in the Holocaust.

Fast-forward 50 years to my childhood. Although my grandparents had a strong Jewish identity—in fact, they lived in a completely Jewish culture growing up—I am one of two Jews in my elementary school, and I know almost nothing about what this means.

But there was one thing that my mother always told me to do: to say the Shema at night. I always did. In fact, I didn’t only say Shema, but would talk to G‑d as well. I would put my head under my pillow and tell G‑d all about my day. I always felt G‑d was listening.

What happens after just two generations of a limited exposure to Torah observance? When I was 18, I went off to college and let go of the little I had held onto.

But there was one thing that I never let go. I always said Shema at night.

When a serious challenge came about in my second year of college, I said Shema. And I prayed. When the challenge became more challenging, I said Shema. My Shema guided me to visit the Chabad House on campus, what became my place of refuge. I continued to say Shema.

Somehow, I ended up here. In this booming Jewish city. A wife and mother, and a woman who considers herself part of the Chabad community as well.

Does my story really connect to my grandparents at all? Besides for the fact that they are my grandparents? Up until a few days ago, I didn’t really think so.

Then I discovered a recording of my grandfather from 1981. It was the first time that I had ever heard his voice. I sat and listened to him being interviewed for an hour. At the very end, the interviewer asked him a question: Did you ever lose faith?

He said, “I never Somehow, I ended up here lost faith. Every night, I said Shema.” Even in the barracks of Auschwitz.

And now I know why I am here. Why I became the woman that I am. How I was guided to this incredible life. It was my grandfather’s Shema.

And so, I cry here for all of the Holocaust victims. For my grandmother’s 170 family members whom I have never met. I know that their prayers, their tears, their good deeds and their Shemas will live on. Even if we realize it only 70 years later.

I like to think that it was decreed in the Heavens: Because you, Isaac Sevi, said Shema in Auschwitz, your only granddaughter will say Shema as well.